On the sidelines of a visit to a factory farm in Fayoum on December 25, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was asked whether it was possible to hold long-delayed elections for local council seats in the same year as elections to the House of Representatives and the recently reinstated Senate, both expected in late 2020.
Sisi responded by calling for a public dialogue on local council elections in order to “explore all the different viewpoints.” He did not specify a date.
Local administration is one of three sub-branches of the executive, below the presidency and the Cabinet. An entire chapter of the 2014 Constitution is dedicated to regulating how the state should be divided into administrative entities — including governorates, cities and villages — and stipulates that each entity should have a separate budget. The Constitution tasks Parliament with passing a bill within five years that outlines the requirements and processes for the appointment or election of governors and chairpeople of other local administrative entities, as well as the process governing the election of local councils for each entity. The five-year period elapsed in January 2019.
The president’s call in December for a public dialogue — which would necessitate a further delay in the local council elections — appears to be a reversal of previous stances, when he pushed for the elections to take place.
Back in April 2016, Sisi instructed the government to begin preparing for local council elections to be held before the end of the year. By July, the government had drafted a bill and submitted it to Parliament, and in September the legislature announced it had received the bill for consideration. The Local Government and Public Organizations Committee in Parliament concluded its review of the bill in April 2017, and since then, the president has repeatedly stated at various conferences and public events that the local council elections were imminent. Most recently, at the eighth National Youth Conference in September 2019, Sisi expressed his wish for Parliament to pass the bill during its current session and to hold the elections by early 2020.
Speaker of Parliament Ali Abdel Aal shelved the bill until last month, when he finally put it on the agenda for the December 22 session. But when Abdel Aal submitted the bill to the General Assembly and called for a vote to begin preliminary discussions on its provisions, he was met with an unexpected outcry by the Alliance to Support Egypt — including the pro-Sisi Nation’s Future Party — and a raft of other parties that forced him to postpone the bill once again.
Opponents of the bill in Parliament said that with parliamentary elections on the horizon, their parties could not prepare for the elections in time, and cited a host of other objections, including the proportion of seats allocated to closed lists versus individuals, a minimum age requirement of 35 for governors or deputy governors, and the definitions of workers and farmers, who are each allocated a quota of seats in local councils.
Yet none of the MPs opposing the bill commented on some of its most controversial provisions, according to MP Mohamed Fouad. For example, the role of elected local councils in new cities has been in question. This is especially relevant in Egypt, where the government has embarked on an urban construction spree, including building a massive new administrative capital.
The Law on the Establishment of New Urban Communities places new cities under the purview of the Housing Ministry, not the Local Development Ministry. During the committee’s review of the local councils legislation, several MPs proposed that oversight of new urban communities be reassigned from the Housing Ministry to the Local Development Ministry so that new cities would have local councils once elections are held.
The Constitution stipulates that the country must be divided into administrative entities. As such, it was initially suggested that local councils composed of residents and businesspeople be established in new urban communities. The local councils would assume oversight of executive bodies from the boards of trustees, whose members are currently appointed by the housing minister, Assem al-Gazar.
According to Fouad, the housing minister opposed this idea and claimed that the Housing Ministry should remain in charge of new urban communities. The minister said boards of trustees could be elected, instead of appointed, and that the Housing Ministry would propose an amendment to the Law on the Establishment of New Urban Communities to that effect.
The Local Government and Public Organizations Committee that reviewed the local councils bill agreed and added a new clause to provide for the continued management of new urban communities by the Housing Ministry, in accordance with the relevant law. The new clause requires that whenever the number of constituents in any new urban community exceeds 3,000, a council is established with a four-year election cycle, which operates under the Housing Ministry. Yet the clause may contravene the Constitution’s requirements for administrative entities, according to Fouad.
Another example is an article that provides for governors to be appointed, not elected, a decision that the Constitution allows the legislature to make, Fouad says. During the committee review, a number of MPs argued strongly that governors should be directly elected with the exception of border governorates which have their governors appointed for a period of two years, after which elections could be held. Yet the appointment provision for all governors remains.
Additionally, the government claims that the bill promotes decentralization even though it preserves the president’s power to establish, abolish or demarcate special administrative entities, cities and governorates — something that was first granted in the 1979 law on local councils. Local councils would also remain largely toothless in their ability to dismiss governors or their deputies. For example, if a local council concludes by a three-fourths majority that a governor or deputy governor is responsible for a violation, the decision to dismiss them reverts to the president, Fouad says.
The quotas allocated to workers and farmers, as well as the proportions of seats allocated to closed lists versus individuals in the bill, must also be reviewed in order to verify their constitutionality, Fouad says.
As it stands, discussion on the bill has once again been shelved in Parliament and Sisi’s call for a public dialogue might result in the bill being postponed until after the term of the current Parliament ends in January 2021. Local council elections, which involve tens of thousands of candidates, might be delayed until after a newly elected legislature begins its term next year.
The delay may point to an internal power struggle between the country’s security and intelligence agencies, according to several sources, although the specifics of the friction remain vague.
According to a researcher at Parliament’s General Secretariat, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, Abdel Aal was instructed in mid-December to pass the bill. He presented it to the Alliance to Support Egypt and the parties within it, most prominently the Nation’s Future Party. Everybody agreed to discuss the bill, and Abdel Aal put it on the agenda for the December 22 session. This happened with the blessing of both deputy speakers in Parliament: al-Sayed al-Sherif, who represents the Alliance to Support Egypt, and Suleiman Wahdan, who represents the Wafd Party.
But during the December 22 session, he was met with an unexpected uproar of opposition. MP Galila Osman says she was surprised when the Nation’s Future Party and other major parties fiercely opposed the bill. “As soon as the speaker presented the bill to the General Assembly, it was clear from the reaction in the room that the powers-that-be wanted the bill dropped,” Osman says.
Abdel Aal reiterated several times during the session that he was merely putting forward a vote to hold a preliminary discussion on the bill, while the contested articles could be changed in accordance with the Constitution at a later date. Abdel Aal also asserted that Parliament may not on principle block a piece of legislation that is complementary to the Constitution and which Parliament is required to pass.
“The deep state … is what is standing in the way of passing this bill,” Abdel Aal said during the heated session. In response, Ashraf Rashad, the president of the Nation’s Future Party, issued a press release blasting Abdel Aal’s use of the term “deep state” as inappropriate.
The nature of the “deep state” that Abdel Aal was referring to remains unclear. But according to the researcher Fouad and MP Osman, the Alliance to Support Egypt had received orders to block the bill mere hours before the session began.
Three members of the Nation’s Future Party told Mada Masr on condition of anonymity that the reason the bill has been reshelved is a renewed clash between an intelligence agency and a security agency, which are vying for control of the political management of the country.
According to the researcher, Abdel Aal is aligned with the intelligence agency, which was looking to pass the bill, while the Nation’s Future Party is aligned with the security agency, which wanted it stalled. In October, Sisi ordered the National Security Agency to put forward political groups to become members of the House and the Senate, because Sisi was unsatisfied with the performance of the legislative body under the coordination of the General Intelligence Service, parliamentary and security sources said at the time.
Three days after the contentious parliamentary session, Sisi called for a public dialogue on the bill, which appears to show his tacit support for the security agency, as it further delays the bill’s passage. The three members of the Nation’s Future Party say this may reflect a presidential endorsement of the security agency to retain some of its mandates to manage political parties, elections, and other representative bodies after those responsibilities were handed over to the intelligence agency following the passage of the constitutional amendments last year.